Emergency food drops in remote Australian communities

Opinion Article

2011 October, 28

Emergency food drops are common in developing countries, but many Australians might be unaware  that remote communities here also need emergency food drops every year. 

The situation is particularly dire during the wet season, which is coming up, when roads close and  food prices triple. Coen, for example, one of the communities taking part in Cape York Welfare  Reform, experiences seasonal interruptions in food supply that last year resulted in five emergency  food drops. Despite the success of income management, shops are still bare during the wet. 

Cape York is not alone in experiencing problems with the availability and affordability of fresh, nutritious food. The issue is prevalent in other remote communites such as the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands of remote South Australia. 

Of course, it is not that no food is available – baked beans and rice are always there. The problem is the affordability and diversity of food. Most inland Aboriginal communities are completely cut off during the wet season and so rely on flying in fresh food, which can add up to $4 a kilo in freight. So people substitute fresh food with energy-dense, nutrient-poor food. In the wet season, nutrition and  even hunger are constant concerns.

But the problem exists all year round. Studies continually find that food is more than 30 per cent more expensive in very remote areas, and up to 80 per cent more. This gets worse as the community  gets more remote and is worse still for fresh fruit and vegetables. 

And remote indigenous people often have much lower incomes. The average weekly individual income in Amata on the APY Lands, in Aurukun in Cape York and across much of remote Aboriginal  Australia is as low as $219 a week. It is no wonder people cannot afford food. 

These communities have both the highest food prices and the lowest incomes of any place in Australia. Unsurprisingly, remote Aboriginal people spend much more of their income on food than even the poorest Australians in cities. A study in one remote community in northern Australia estimated that people there spend on average 38 per cent of their income of food and non-alcoholic beverages. The lowest income quintile of Australians spends 19 per cent and Australia on average spends 17 per cent. High food prices compound the already terrible poverty.

But freight and food subsidy schemes, where they exist, are fragmented and based on the emergency relief model. When stocks of a particular food are low, the government subsidises delivery of that food. This accentuates the boom and bust nature of food supply in these remote locations and does not help to provide consumers with a reliable supply of healthy food.

On the other hand, Tasmania receives generous freight subsidies on all freight shipped across the  Bass Strait. The rate of subsidy is set at the equivalent of the road transport price from Victoria to northern Tasmania. So the buyer in Launceston who ships goods from Melbourne pays the equivalent of what a person would pay having trucked the goods the same distance. This applies for  all goods and is not reliant on emergency shortages. Tasmanians can predict the prices and availability of goods. 

Whether or not the subsidy to Tasmania should continue, there is a much stronger case for subsidies  to remote Australia, especially to communities cut off during the wet season. Canada has for many  years run such a system, now called Nutrition North Canada, which subsidises food freightage per kilogram on all nutritious food transported to remote northern communities. The level of the  subsidy depends on the distance from major transport hubs, and some communities are only subsidised for the part of the year when they are inaccessible by road. Evaluations of Nutrition North  Canada and its predecessors show that increasing the subsidy on healthy food can significantly increase purchase and consumption in remote communities, which have previously had very poor  nutrition. 

A subsidy can also help to introduce competition into communities, which mostly have only a single  store. The subsidy scheme should allow consumers, schools and aged care facilities to buy subsidised  food directly off urban suppliers, essentially through a mail order system. This competition will help  to ensure the subsidy is passed on to consumers.

Subsidies on food freightage are one strategy which, together with income management and local food production, can help to address the food security crisis in remote Australia. The fact that  emergency food drops are so common in a developed country like Australia should convince us that  we need to lay down our money to help.

Emergency food drops in remote Australian communities